Donald Trump has occupied the evangelical imagination for long enough. Both those who did nothing else but #Resist and those who turned him into an avatar of Christian politics contributed to an imaginative captivity that has succeeded in doing nothing but creating new enmities and churning up old ones. For four years the preeminent sorting within evangelicalism was not about the gospel or how we live it out, but Pro Trump vs Never Trump. I can’t help but wonder if that is what will reverberate to ill effect longer than 99% of Trump’s policies or rhetoric: that we who believe the dead come to life were enthralled by the most pitiful exhibition of American polarization. Did we really have nothing better to do?
I’m not really sympathetic to the response, “Politics is about love of neighbor, that’s why we fight!” Yes, politics is about love of neighbor, but blasting your pastor on Facebook or trying to get people fired from their jobs on Twitter is not politics. I’m also not too sympathetic to the idea that evangelicals and conservatives were writing their own death warrant by criticizing a president who wasn’t afraid to tell the woke enforcers to get lost. There are other ways to engage with enemies of free speech, and we know this because (ta-da!) the gospel came to a people who were not “free” to advance a new religion. The First Amendment wasn’t conceived by reality TV stars who “told it like it is.” The Trump moment in American history was, and is, and always will be, about Trump.
That’s precisely why it’s such a tragedy that so many evangelicals have been unable to see beyond it. The odds were always very good that America would get a new president in 2020. Why didn’t that reality tame our tongues and discipline our time? Why was there so little “temporal bandwidth,” so little effort to imagine an imminent American culture where the person we were most willing to torch our institutions and our friendships over simply was not in power anymore? It’s as if in a moment of acute amnesia we forgot that 2012 was also the “most important election of our lifetime,” as was 2008, 2004, 2000….
Now he’s been voted out. Who knows what role in our clicks-and-ratings media jungle Trump will play? Probably one we can’t predict. My question is, “Why should we care?” I hear a lot about “the media” in regards to why Christians should be very concerned with how our 45th president was treated. The same media that ridicules religious believers as unscientific rubes while cheerleading the emasculation of children for the sake of ideology is the same media that relentlessly criticized and undermined Donald Trump’s presidency. I take the point. But if the last four years prove anything at all, they prove that the obsession many conservatives and evangelicals have with the media is not one rooted in reality. Even those analysts many loathe at CNN do not determine elections (they didn’t in 2016….right?). Even those New York Times columnists who despise you and your family and everything you believe cannot actually do anything about it. They are the biggest fish in the bowl, nothing more.
I talk a lot nowadays about Christians engaging culture from ahead rather than behind. The Trump moment In evangelicalism is the proof we need of how bad it can get when we engage culture strictly from behind. Not only do we let elite media institutions dictate our agenda, we allow right-wing opportunists to co-opt it. A Christian cultural engagement cannot simply be slapping theological vocabulary onto our hottest takes that own the libs. Aside from decidedly not being what the Bible says, such an approach is doomed from the start. It will cycle out every 4 years, a slave to electoral maps and exit polls, frozen forever in the tyrannical “now” of digital news.
It’s time to move on. Not just from pro-Trump vs Never Trump, but from this worn out effort to feel actualized as Christians by the winds of power. Let’s not be taken in like this again. We don’t grieve as those without hope, so why should we live like them?